18 CommentsAnime Analysis / By Shinmaru /

Yu Yu Hakusho – Death Is Cheap


I’m the big anime watcher in my family, but my brother and sister dabble in it occasionally, as well. Back in the day when you’d see anime on TV before midnight in America, my brother got huge into Yu Yu Hakusho when it aired on Cartoon Network during its Toonami block. I never saw an episode, though. For whatever reason, I was never curious, even though my brother liked it so much. (Or maybe that’s why. The stuff I watch has to be cooler than what he watches! Can’t discount the possibility of me being a huge asshole back then.) Now, though, I have reason: Yu Yu Hakusho is the breakout manga of Hunter x Hunter author Yoshihiro Togashi. I’ve grown to be a huge admirer of both anime adaptations of the series, along with Level E, another adaptation of a Togashi manga. How could I not be curious?

With that in mind, I bought the YYH blu-rays one day when they went on sale and offered to watch the entire series with my brother during the summer. It’s been an interesting experience!

(By the way, I am going to spoil plenty of stuff about Yu Yu Hakusho, so stop now if you care about that sort of thing.)

For those who haven’t watched the series but for whatever reason don’t care about spoilers, here’s the skinny: Yu Yu Hakusho is about a rough student, Yusuke Urameshi, who is a general delinquent in every respect. He doesn’t give a shit about school, his home life sucks, he gets in fights daily and he sexually harasses his only friend, Keiko. He’s a charming fellow all around. One day, though, he saves a little boy from getting hit with a car, which turns out to be the sole good deed in Yusuke’s life, since he is killed by the impact. This one selfless act earns Yusuke the opportunity to earn his way back into the living world by becoming a spirit detective and solving cases for those in charge of the spirit world. As you might expect, Yusuke gets himself into scrapes that amplify in danger through the course of the series.

Yu Yu Hakusho is an interesting series, because in it I can definitely see the building blocks for Hunter x Hunter. YYH‘s world isn’t quite that weird, but it has a rough edge to it, a sense of true danger. Part of this is because Yusuke himself is a pretty dangerous protagonist. He has a good heart, but he’s a reckless boy. He’s not reckless in the way many shonen protagonists are, willingly sacrificing themselves to save everyone. Yusuke has a revelation near the end of the series — that he goes from fight to fight not really thinking about why he’s doing it. He fights simply to fight, always pulled into battle by the desires of his enemies; there’s no deeper reason behind that, and that thought leaves Yusuke uncomfortable. Even when Yusuke fights to live again, it comes off more like he’s doing it because the only other alternative is death. After all, he wasn’t doing much with his life before that. Yusuke is a boy who fights like someone who has nothing to lose, but he has nothing to gain for a long time, either.

That type of character building is one of the parts of YYH I enjoyed. The characters are mainly a collection of archetypes — hot-headed Yusuke, delinquent with a heart of gold Kuwabara, brooding loner with a dark past Hiei and calm thinker Kurama. However, the way they interact and bounce off each other allows the viewer to get a good sense of their values. Kuwabara has a strong heart, and he’s often mocked for it, but bit by bit you can see how it affects someone like Hiei, whose experiences hardened his heart early in life. On the flipside, it’s interesting to see how Kurama leans on the cold, calculating ways of his early life to protect his new friends. I wasn’t totally sure how much I’d like the characters in this series, but I came out of it enjoying them quite a bit.

The way Kurama and Hiei evolve is particularly interesting, because it involves something I wish the series had explored just a bit more — that the demon world from which they hail is not as starkly evil as it seems. Spirit world is depicted as a bureaucracy in which those in charge make tough decisions that keep the main realms of existence in a state of relative calm. Sometimes they’re upfront, and sometimes there’s some rather shady backroom dealing going on.

YYH is full of that sort of thing, where it takes a common shonen device and undermines it just a bit. I think spirit world is deliberately supposed to evoke something like the spirit world the viewer briefly sees in Dragon Ball Z, but it runs on something more like traditional politics, which shakes the viewer’s trust. YYH‘s world starts black and white and becomes grayer before the show ends. I think this gives the ending — where the spirit, living and demon worlds enter into a truce on the orders of the demon world’s new leader — some stronger ground to stand on. There’s no superior world that has the moral ground with which it can subjugate the others. Each world has its good points and bad.


However, I will say this contributes to some things that disappointed me about the series. Despite all that good stuff I mentioned, my favorite arc in the series is also probably the least conceptually complex, the Dark Tournament arc. It has its problems, for sure — episodes waste time like nobody’s business, a whole host of characters aren’t all that interest and are clearly fodder for the characters the show wants the viewers to care about, and it’s basically a flimsy excuse to put on a series of fights. But I like how it evolves from something simple to something a bit more emotionally complex, with the shared past of Yusuke’s mentor, Genkai, and Toguro, the demon who forces Yusuke to enter the tournament so that they will battle at the end. Toguro’s fear of death versus Genkai’s acceptance of her mortality is an interesting subplot amid all the grunting and machismo and whatnot. It’s still a simple arc, but it delivers more than it promises.

I can’t really say that about the two arcs that come after, Chapter Black and Three Kings. Both are set up in a more complex way than the Dark Tournament. Chapter Black is about Shinobu Sensui, who was Earth’s spirit detective before Yusuke. He conducted himself in a black-and-white matter, but his moral beliefs were shattered when he witnessed the darker side of humanity. Three Kings, meanwhile, is about the three most powerful demons in demon world waging war for control. These are setups that can go interesting places; however, neither of them do, at least when it comes to the emotional arc. Sensui’s feelings of anger and despair are simplified as much as possible, and certain revelations about him make him a rather gimmicky character, I think. It feels weird to say this about a shonen series, but Sensui feels too much like a supervillain for my taste. Toguro has that feel, too, but his deepest fear makes him a more grounded character despite all his posturing about power levels and giant muscles. Three Kings, meanwhile, is just incredibly rushed in all aspects, which, again, feels weird to say about an arc that’s 18 episodes long. But there’s barely any time for stuff to breathe — the plot just barrels headlong toward the end. In its own way, it’s just as bad as all the stalling in the Dark Tournament arc.

Really, I feel most let down by these two arcs because they basically turn into the Dark Tournament arc (i.e. a series of fights). It’s obvious this would happen; this is, after all, a fighting series. The characters are going to battle it out. But in doing so, these two arcs basically discard most (but not all) of what’s interesting about them in favor of the fighting, whereas the Dark Tournament weaves in some more interesting stuff to go along with the battles. I would have been up for Sensui being a more complex villain, or more intrigue with Kurama and Hiei being planted in the ranks of two of the demon kings. (Though Hiei’s relationship with Mukuro does go to some neat places.) Instead, there’s lots and lots of fighting.

This probably would have annoyed me more if the fights didn’t get more interesting with time. In particular, the battles in Chapter Black are cool due to the concept of Territory, which strikes me as a precursor to Nen in Hunter x Hunter. Basically, a person’s power encompasses a certain area around them, and within that area, everything operates by the rules set by the person’s specific power. For instance, one person’s power stipulates that within his area of influence, nobody can use violence against him. He can be defeated only in a battle of wits. And for the most part, battles unfold in interesting ways; it’s not simply two meatheads punching the shit out of each other. Characters do some nice planning that portends the great battles we’re seeing in Hunter x Hunter right now. There’s also some cool animation in these battles. Here’s a tidbit I didn’t know before watching the series: One Akiyuki Shinbo directed and storyboarded several episodes of the series, and several them are some of the most visually distinctive episodes of the show. There’s one in particular where Yusuke battles a psychic doctor that looks fucking cool as hell.


There’s one problem that often keeps the fights from hitting as hard as they should: This series is obsessed with undermining its own drama by resurrecting characters for the dumbest reasons. Shonen has a pretty bad reputation for being really cheap with character deaths, but Yu Yu Hakusho has to be among the worst offenders in this regard. The worst is during the Dark Tournament arc, during which three major characters are killed off but are then brought back in increasingly dumb ways. (One in particular still makes me quite mad when I think about it now.) It’s bad enough where I didn’t buy into basically any drama that came up regarding characters potentially dying; I knew it would never stick, and guess what? It never sticks! Ever! My enjoyment of the battles is solely due to the thought put into them and has nothing to do with how they play into the drama. It’s basically impossible to care about any of the drama in YYH unless you are incredibly gullible.

But a lot of these problems mattered a lot less to me than they would have if I watched it all by myself, because I watched the whole thing with my brother. He had a good time seeing my reactions to everything, and I enjoyed heckling the nonsense with him and appreciating all the good stuff. My favorite game we did is looking out for any demon that looked like a humanoid animal and riffing dumb stuff like “BUT I’M A WALRUUUUUUUS” or “LISTEN TO ME I’M A SNAAAAAAAAAAAKE.” If anyone else were in the room with us, they would be incredibly irritated and think of us as total idiots, and I wouldn’t blame them. That said, anime so rarely gives me an opportunity to bond in dumb ways with my siblings, so whatever. Maybe I would have dropped the show if I were watching it by myself, but it flew by while watching with my bro bro. There’s something to be said for that.

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  1. Coolwihp
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    It’s really great to see a review of this in 2013. YYH is one of the first anime I saw. I think I hold it in a much higher regard because I saw it when I was young and the awesome fighting completely overshadowed the drama aspect to me. I still liked the drama but I never gave it much thought. If I were to go back and sit through the sagas again I’m sure I would have a very hard time enjoying the silliness this anime harbors.

    • Shinmaru
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps, though with the added experience, you might be in a better position to appreciate the technical aspects now. There are some really bad looking episodes and sequences peppered throughout (how could there not be?), but there are plenty of visually inventive episodes, as well. And I didn’t mention this in the post, but the blu-rays looking shockingly good. Some good remastering work must have been done on this series to look as sharp as it does.

  2. ANON
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    The only ones who die are the lower class demons, they’re always shown being erased to dust. most of those who are killed are spectators, lol they paid for tickets to seats at that arena during the dark tournament arc and then they are killed when they happen to be in the path of an errant energy ball or something.

    In my area of the world, YYH is really well known, although by a different name. I daresay most male teenagers to young adults here, even those who know very little about anime would be able to tell you what yusuke’s main weapon is.

    • Shinmaru
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      Haha, yeah, during that whole arc I kept asking my brother, “Why the hell would anyone buy a ticket to this tournament? Most of the spectators are dead now!” The tournament in the final arc has a much kinder audience death rate. :p

      • ANON
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        they used the roving eye cameras projected on screens for that one I think, with commentators on top of them if I recall correctly, ready to fly away if it got too dangerous. I thought they finally learned how to lessen the casualties, considering that most of the fighters in the last arc can wipe off parts of the demon world when they use their power.

  3. Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I was more a fan of Chapter Black in the day solely for its concepts and because it focused a bit more on the spirit detective stuff. Sensui and the ending were lame but damn were the zone powers and all cool.

    Three Kings I don’t even remember to be honest aside from the meeting with that mother in the beginning and the final episode.

  4. gedata
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I actually thought Sensui was a pretty interesting dude with his seven personalities and all, him and Itsuki were the first implied male couple I’d seen in a manga. However, I always thought that his motivations were a bit absurd. The fact that he went from a protagonist-like defender of justice, to a “DIE HUMANS DIE!” type of loonie didn’t make such sense to me. That probably could’ve been handled better.

    Yeah, and YYH definetly has that Dragon Ball-like attitude when it comes to character deaths, except in Dragon Ball, you always knew how characters would return from the otherworld. YYH doesn’t have that a plot-device like the Dragon Balls so it has to come up with different excuses, seriously Genkai shoulda stayed dead.

    I also noticed that Shonen titles that deal with the aftermath tend to revive characters a lot. Examples I can think of off the top of my head would Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Shaman King (the manga)

    To end this post on an unrelated note, are you finished Vento Aureo yet?

    • Shinmaru
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

      The multiple personalities bit is the kind of gimmicky thing I’m talking about in this post. It just strikes me as a weak way to display how damaged Sensui’s psyche is and makes him feel more like a boring supervillain.

      And, yeah, I said to this my brother — at least with Dragon Ball, you know to expect that the series will resurrect its characters because that’s built right into the entire point of the series. It’s dumb, but at least Dragon Ball gives itself a reasonable out. The shit YYH pulls is just terrible. And, yeah, Genkai is THE WORST one by far.

      I have two volumes left in Vento Aureo. I’ll likely finish them before my days off so that I can spend a lot of time working on the post afterward.

      • Adreme
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

        At least in Yu Yu Hakusho when the character were sad over deaths it made sense. Granted the dead people returned, some in dumber ways then others, but at least there reactions made sense at the time because they had no reason to assume they would be back in 10 episodes or less.

        In DBZ it was so built into the story that death was not permanent that I remember when 2 major characters died (well 1 died and they thought other was dead) they were all crying and weeping and I was sitting there thinking “you guys know you can just wish them back right, not like you haven’t tried done it 100 times already”

      • Shinmaru
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

        Hahaha, fair point!

  5. Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    In Chinese mythology at least, the spirit world is depicted as a bureaucracy, where the overruling Jade Emperor is constantly making rash decisions like “Immediately send our entire army to kill a monkey that was rude!” and his ministers have to quickly rationalise with him, and in the Jade Palace the lowest rank is the people who look after the horses, and the higher you are the more servants you have and so on. Interesting fact!1q!

  6. Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’m commenting without reading because you said there were spoilers everywhere and I currently have only watched season 1 ;_; damn Netflix.

    I loved Hunter x Hunter enough to spend many hours reading the fan-translated manga online up until the most recent chapter, just like with Soul Eater (my gateway anime) and History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi. Togashi is a genius who deserves more recognition than what he gets, even if he has a horrible time keeping up with schedule.

    I’m going to thoroughly enjoy reading through this article, Shinmaru, and I am glad you finally got to talking about it… But I have to find time to finish up the series first :I

  7. Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    but it flew by while watching with my bro bro. There’s something to be said for that.


    I have yet to see YYH. Maybe someday, I should watch it with my brother. It is quite fun watching stuff with him, though I guess he probably gets tired of my commentary.

  8. Nagisa33
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    My brother and I watched Yu Yu Hakusho together back when it was on Toonami and both enjoyed it. He rewatched it last year and he said that it holds up pretty well, stating it wasn’t just the nostalgia that made it a good show. He also said that it’s one of the better shonens out there.

    That makes me wonder, besides Fullmetal Alchemist, Hunter X Hunter, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (even though it’s not an anime), what are some truly solid shonen shows that you can hold up as being fantastic in almost every way? I guess I’m thinking in the more traditional sense with world traveling and fights.

    • Gan_HOPE326
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      I guess Jojo could be one of those…? Even though not for the same reason (it’s not especially solid in terms of plot or making sense, just bloody entertaining). Other than that, I can’t think of anything, FMA and HXH are my paragons for the genre.

      • Nagisa33
        Posted September 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        I forgot to mention JoJo. Man, that series was insanely great! My brother and I loved it. “OH MY GOD!”

  9. John Locke
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Is the dub worth watching?

    • Shinmaru
      Posted September 1, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s pretty good, actually! The voices fit the characters well, and it has just the right mix of seriousness and silliness that the series goes for. Maybe one day if I’m bored I’ll watch some of the series in Japanese just to see what it’s like.

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